“I love these rowdy crowds. Isn’t it great? This is spirit.”
—Donald Trump, August 19, 2015
“I am here because I want to be among my friends and among the people. … This was truly a great movement and I want to be here with you and I will always be with you.”
—Donald Trump, February 17, 2017
Trump is not the first presidential blowhard to take a break from sucking at governing to ramble intemperately at ravening crowds. In the summer of 1866, Andrew Johnson, the guy who came after Lincoln, was about halfway through the worst presidency we’ve ever had to endure (and I include my own stint as president of the ninth grade in this assessment) when he embarked on an outrageous two-week, cross-country speaking tour. Your high school history text book called it by the ungainly name “The Swing Around the Circle.” The historian Eric Foner once wrote that Johnson got through these rallies by indulging “his unique blend of self-aggrandizement and self-pity.” Foner used the word “unique” only because he didn’t anticipate Trump.
'The president has no business talking this way.' Ulysses Grant
Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who owned five slaves, hadn’t been the most intuitive vice presidential selection for a Republican president who’d just freed the slaves. In 1864, though, Lincoln really thought he might lose the election, and Johnson gave the ticket balance and star power; as the only senator from a Confederate state to stay loyal to the Union instead of seceding, he won fame saying things like, “Traitors must be punished and treason crushed.”
Lincoln may have been a shrewd campaigner, but he didn’t anticipate that he would be assassinated shortly after delivering his awesome Second Inaugural Address, leaving “this queer man” to put a shattered nation back together. He also didn’t fully appreciate what an asshole Johnson was, though he might have started taking the hint when Johnson showed up to his inauguration dead drunk, took the oath of office, and then grabbed the Bible, held it aloft, and shouted, “I kiss this book in the face of my nation!”
'Mr. Johnson had an unfortunate propensity for coining phrases which could be used to ridicule him.' William Crook, personal secretary
Johnson’s personality, formed in the crucible of a deprived childhood, consisted mostly of hatreds. He loathed the big plantation masters, lightning rods for his bitterness about the advantages he didn’t have. He called them the “illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy.” As a corollary, he also despised their slaves, whom he considered the instrument the planters used to oppress him.
When the Civil War ended, his contempt for slave owners dissipated (precisely why is something of a mystery), but his hostility toward slaves re-attached itself to freed people and turned into rage. Once, Johnson informed Frederick Douglass matter-of-factly that “the Negro will vote with the late master, whom he does not hate, rather than with the non-slaveholding white, whom he does hate.” Douglass, a runaway slave on record about his feelings toward “the late master,” disagreed. When he did, Johnson said that Douglass is “just like any nigger.” Say what you will about Trump—for example, you could say that he doesn’t seem to know who Frederick Douglass was—but at least he has been highly complimentary of him.
Of course, it’s not fair to hold Andrew Johnson or anyone else to modern ideological standards. It’s also bad history. We can’t understand the past by pretending it’s happening in the present. So: we cannot expect the historical Andrew Johnson to use transgender friendly pronouns. We cannot even expect him to believe that the statement “all men are created equal” applies to black men (or to women). But we can judge him for taking apparent satisfaction in the suffering of other human beings. Johnson’s racism wasn’t just an incidental artifact of his times, like his cravat and pocket watch; it expressed something vicious inside him.
The reason Johnson’s racism needs to be understood is that it determined his decision-making as president. “This is,” he said, “a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” When the head of the Freedman’s Bureau tried to split up plantations into 40-acre tracts for freed people to settle on, Johnson restored the land to the traitors he’d promised to punish. This was especially galling because the best thing Johnson ever did was give landless (white) citizens free land on the theory that “industrious settlers” contribute to “national growth and prosperity.” When a Union general ordered white Mississippians not to form a militia he suspected would terrorize freed people, Johnson countermanded the order, then told the Union general to send his black soldiers away because they represented a “painful humiliation” to local white people.
Unlike Johnson, Congress accepted a modicum of responsibility for giving freed people a fair start, and these two interpretations of freedom’s meaning could not coexist. The impasse with Congress provided the strategic justification for Johnson’s rallies. The mid-term elections were coming up, and he wanted to help elect more friendly candidates. Based on his insane performances on the stump, though, it’s obvious that the real reason for the tour was the throbbing of his own damaged, execrating psyche. Johnson wanted to pop off and glory in the reaction of his audience, as he had done for decades back in Tennessee. He thought of himself as “the Tribune of the people.”
But this wasn’t the local debating society where he cut his teeth. At these rallies, he spoke to Yankees who’d just finished burying their sons after four bloody years. They were looking for something besides long-winded excuses for reneging on the promise to crush treason.
When the people proved less fawning than he expected, the Tribune didn’t handle the heckling well. Over the course of the tour, he toggled between aggression, paranoia, and smugness. He accused Congress of being behind the disturbances, lacking “the courage and the manhood” to fight him, and having “little boys” and “little dogs” do it instead. He said he had been “traduced,” “slandered,” and “maligned.” He complained of “the mendacious press.” He suggested hanging Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist known to us as Tommy Lee Jones’s character in Spielberg’s Lincoln. At one point, Johnson compared himself to the merciful Jesus. “Yes,” he said, “over 1800 years ago, there was a man who …. put himself upon the cross … and there declared…: ‘I will die that man may live.’ Then if I have erred, it is in that way.” He referred to his blood as “the last libation of liberty.” No wonder Indianapolis exploded in a deadly riot while he spoke. When someone in the crowd suggested he’d lost his dignity, he said, “I care not for my dignity.”
This litany of spasms and spewings sounds surprisingly familiar, 151 years later. But the oddly direct line between Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump may augur well for our future. The hours of unspooling his consciousness in public may have helped Johnson feel better, but they didn’t do his presidency any good. In those mid-term elections of 1866, his opponents in Congress won even more seats and a veto-proof majority, his ridiculous efforts notwithstanding. In total, they would override his veto 15 times, which is still a record, even though he didn’t serve even a single full term. Then they impeached him.
Annette Gordon-Reed’s Johnson entry in the American President’s Series was extra enjoyable. For a longer, more complete, and more dispassionate study, try Hans Trefousse. There is a book just about the Swing Around the Circle, by Garry Boulard, but I couldn’t get my hands on it. Instead, I relied on a series of four articles published by Gregg Phifer in Tennessee Historical Quarterly in 1952. You can find those on jstor if you’re interested. On the Reconstruction period in general, there’s a lot, but Eric Foner is still the place to start. He has a long and a short history on the subject, both with excellent and updated introductions that give you all the historiographical context you need. (In graduate school, we used to joke about how much mileage he was getting out of the same material. Reconstruction: The Flip Book. Reconstruction: The Song Cycle. This passed for funny during that ordeal.) Finally, do yourself a favor and look up (and bask in) Lincoln’s second inaugural.